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Last week I finished Super Metroid for the first time. I played it on Switch, via the stack of emulated Super Nintendo cartridges available through the console’s online service. This groundbreaking game of highly kinetic and deeply atmospheric exploration has aged astoundingly well over the last quarter-century, and I can recommend it to modern players without reservations.*
And, yes, my time with Super Metroid, and with Nintendo’s classic-console emulation software, moved me to write last month’s post insisting on simulated CRT scan lines when playing emulated video games. That emulator has further interesting features I’d like to focus on today. Specifically, by pressing the Switch’s trigger buttons—not present on the emulated games’ original controllers—you can quickly dump a game’s entire memory state into a file, or load a previous file into memory. This effectively acts as an always-available save-game feature, for every emulated game. Furthermore, holding the triggers down calls up a filmstrip-style view with browsable snapshots of your last several seconds of gameplay, any one of which you may select. Doing so instantly rewinds the emulated game back to that point.
Were these features absent, I don’t think I would have finished Super Metroid. With them present, I had one of the most pleasant, surprising, and thoroughly enjoyable gaming experiences of recent memory—and one tuned exactly to the level of difficulty that felt perfect for me.
For example, my battle with Ridley, the Metroid games’ iconic arch-nemesis, took me several tries. I fought fair and square every time, my fingers off those magic triggers. But: I respectfully disagreed with the design choice to put the in-game save-station so far away from Ridley’s room, requiring a time-consuming (and vaguely humiliating) trudge back through an obstacle course of lava-soaked platforms and mook-level enemies every time the scaly jerk pastes you. No, the first time I realized I had walked into Ridley’s arena, I used those triggers to time-turn myself right back out the door, and then again to set up a save-file bivouac in his foyer.
And you know what? Maybe I “cheated”, but—speaking as the only human player involved in this experience—I do not feel cheated. My use of the emulator’s save-anywhere and rewind-anytime features did not rob me of an ounce of enjoyment or sense of personal accomplishment. In fact, as I started breaking into the endgame, I felt great, because I knew I was going to finish—something I absolutely cannot say for so many wonderful games I’ve had to give up on and walk away from in recent years.
At the very same time I finished Super Metroid, my friends celebrated the news that Outer Wilds players will soon enjoy some new DLC that expands its original story. This coincidence of timing jarred me into imagining the Nintendo emulator’s time-warping features as standard in all video games, including very modern works like Outer Wilds. And from there, I rapidly adopted the belief that if a game lets you pause at any time, then it should let you rewind as well—where “rewind” can mean the Switch’s literal time-turn, or the ability to save at any time, or even just generous checkpoints. Enough to let you retry a mistake at minimal cost, however that best fits the game in question.
I haven’t written here about Outer Wilds, even though I think it’s one of the most impressive single works of electronic entertainment ever produced. I mean it: it’s a great game, and a true marvel to experience. It models the entirety of a toy solar system, as well as the extremely precise and complex ways its many parts interact over a twenty-minute period. The game gives you both the means and the motivation to explore every inch of its itty-bitty planets’ hand-designed surfaces and interiors, and the starlit spaces in between them.
It is also hard, and as unforgiving in some ways as a Dark Souls game. While I took great joy in its many subtle observational and navigational challenges, I find less pleasure in the many ways a single wrong move through a tricky, minutes-long sequence kills you instantly and returns you the game’s starting location.† Wending your way back to the spot you perished for another try can take several more minutes of focused attention and careful maneuvering—work that becomes undone in an eyeblink, if you once again manage to not quite stick the landing.
I can’t stand feeling penalized a palpable chunk of my personal time and attention for a half-second of incorrect controller input—and then being asked to do it again, now knowing what the punishment will entail if I get it wrong. Inevitably, I reach a point where continuing feels too stressful. It’s why I generally don’t play roguelikes or Dark Souls-style games, and it’s why, to my lasting regret, I don’t feel able to complete Outer Wilds, one of the most objectively amazing created worlds I’ve ever inhabited.
Now, Outer Wilds lets you pause the game at any time. Of course it does, why wouldn’t it? Single player video games have made a pause-anytime feature standard since before most of today’s game-players were born. No game needs to provide a diegetic explanation for this; your character needn’t be a time-wizard. Players just accept that games let you freeze the world whenever you wish.
I want to see this paradigm extended. Specifically, I wish to see it become normal that every game with the means to offer a pause function also offer some way to take back bad moves. As with pause, the game does not need to bend over backwards to justify it; it doesn’t have to be Braid or Prince of Persia and theme itself entirely around time-rewinding. Let the player say “whoops” and try that tricky jump again, in the exact same mode a game already lets the player say “hang on a sec” and answer the phone.
(Or how I rewind the movie I’m streaming to replay to a bit of key dialogue I missed due to local noise, or flip back two pages when I catch my attention wandering away from the novel in my hands. And so on.)
I really do believe that games like Outer Wilds would be a much more accessible experience for all players if they allowed you to drop a save-point anywhere you wished, or quietly checkpointed your last entry into some dangerous zone, or kept a running snapshot or two of the world-state on a ten-second heartbeat.
And I use the term “accessible” here deliberately! The AbleGamers Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes and supports accessibility affordances for game-players with disabilities, names “Undo/Redo” as one of the core features that video games can have in order to achieve greater accessibility to more players in more situations.
My accompanying ol’ Samus Aran through the shadowy caves of Planet Zebes last week leaves me firmly convinced that some sort of do-over function should exist in every solitaire video game, including but not limited to games of exploration and discovery like Super Metroid and Outer Wilds. At my current age and attention-budget, I absolutely needed the accessibility affordances that the Switch’s emulator provided, and I feel grateful for their presence. Looking at the game-win screenshot I took of Samus giving me that hard-won thumbs-up still fills me with real happiness and pride at my accomplishment.
And, yes, I did pull those rewind-triggers a couple of times during the closing credits to make sure I caught that moment for posterity.
This article was also posted to the “games” section of Indieweb.xyz.
* No reservations, but one admonition: you should know the things that a player of 1994 would know from having read the game’s printed instruction manual. If nothing else, know that Samus has a dash ability from the start of the game, activated by holding down the controller’s B button. Nothing on-screen ever tells you this, and the infamous early-game “noob bridge” stymies modern players unaware of the fact.
† Or teleports you into interplanetary space without your ship, or flings your ship into the sun without you aboard, or otherwise traps you in an unrecoverable situation that forces a reset. These situations are all enlightening (and hilarious) the first time they happen, at least!
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